As the omnibus crime bill made its way through Congress last summer, a sense of foreboding swept through the ranks of the Florida Patriots Network, one of the dozens of paramilitary citizen groups formed over the past two years in many states.

Convinced the bill was another infringement on the right to bear arms, the self-styled militias broke into small units called "triads" to better prepare for a possible confrontation. Fueled by an intense hatred of federal law enforcement, the group's most extreme members went even further.

"Some wanted to more or less go into becoming survivalists, a head-for-the-hills type organization. . . . I guess you could say some people decided to go underground. They've had enough," explained leader John Adams, who now heads a small splinter group that meets in a private hall in Stuart, Fla. Adams said members of his "cell" are still trying to work within the political system, although their disillusionment is profound.

To a degree never imagined by most of official Washington, federal restrictions on firearms ownership enacted during the Clinton administration ignited a raging brush fire among gun owners. It spread with stunning speed. In fact, the harder the Clinton administration and Democratic-controlled Congress pushed to pass gun restrictions, the greater the growth of the armed citizen militias, according to organizers and the interest groups that warily track them.

The Treasury Department says that citizen militias have now been formed in about 34 states, "with membership ranging from 10 to several hundred in each group," according to Undersecretary for Enforcement Ronald K. Noble. Other experts believe there are units in almost every state, with membership nationwide ranging from 10,000 to 40,000 or more.

The militia movement is under intense scrutiny in the wake of the Oklahoma City federal building bombing, an act motivated at least in part by anti-government fervor, authorities believe. With suspect Timothy James McVeigh linked to extremist militias in Michigan and Arizona, the groups suddenly are no longer seen as largely harmless, weekend warriors donned in camouflage and battle fatigues.

With President Clinton pushing for stepped up law enforcement authority against domestic terrorism, fallout from the Oklahoma City bombing has begun to shake the militia movement. Some groups report declines in attendance at recent meetings, and leaders bitterly complain that the government has unfairly targeted the movement to justify its abuses of authority. Indeed, law enforcement now is taking more seriously the wild threats of assassination and vengeance that have dominated the literature and Internet ramblings of the movement's most virulent members. Security has been heightened for officials like Attorney General Janet Reno, a figure the militias detest.

In March, militia member Mark Reynolds, in a weekly conservative radio commentary in Washington state, said if the government keeps "pushing people the way they are doing, people like Reno will end up hanging from telephone poles or trees." In an interview, he added: "When it comes to the Constitution, the federal government spits on us. There will be a standoff; it will come down to guerrilla warfare."

President Clinton this week escalated his criticisms of paramilitary groups that espouse violence. "We must also stand up against . . . people who say, I love my country but I hate my government,' " Clinton said on Monday.

Several Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee yesterday called for hearings on citizen militias. "It {the militia movement} is an internal threat to our Democratic processes," Rep. Patricia Schroeder (Colo.) told a news conference, according to Reuter.

Although specific law enforcement incidents like the 1993 Waco confrontation touched off citizen anger, they affirmed what many gun enthusiasts believed they had seen developing in Congress: more restrictions on individual firearms ownership and greater authority for the despised agency that monitors them, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Prodded by the National Rifle Association and other gun groups, militia organizers railed against the Brady bill, convinced that provisions like a five-day waiting period for handguns were a first step toward citizen disarmament.

While militia members mobilized in Florida last year, a tide of discontent also swelled across Montana. From the small Bitterroot Valley town of Hamilton near the Idaho border, to the state's largest cities of Billings and Great Falls, more than 2,000 Montana citizens turned out for organizational meetings of the Militia of Montana. Organizers gave out fliers bearing a picture of Adolf Hitler giving a Sieg Heil salute and the printed exhortation: "ALL IN FAVOR OF GUN CONTROL RAISE YOUR RIGHT HAND."

With the meetings, explained Ken Toole, director of Montana Human Rights Network, which monitors right-wing political activity, militia sentiment in the state grew from "15 to 20 growly, old crusty guys at a meeting to where all of a sudden 200 people were showing up." Now, the Militia of Montana, led by the prolific pamphleteer John Trochmann, has extended its reach through mass mailings of anti-government materials and videos.

Generalizing about a social phenomenon as diffuse and multifaceted as the militia movement is difficult. The makeup, ideologies and degree of commitment vary from state to state and group to group. Some members spring from the bottom rungs of the disaffected working class. Others are professionals. Some embrace violent resistance to perceived government encroachment. Others view the experience as more of a social club.

"We see the full gamut," Toole said, "We're aware of one person who's a physician and another who's an attorney and then it goes all the way down to the more stereotypical: the Billy Bobs drinking beer and chewing tobacco."

What frustrates attempts to establish the size and structure of the militias, besides their secretive nature and occasional periods of apparent dormancy, are the large number of sympathizers who identify with the groups but do not take an active role in them.

Though militia literature is filled with condemnations of specific government officials, authorities have no real way to assess the threat posed by the groups. ATF's Charles Thomson, the assistant director for enforcement, testified before a Senate subcommittee this week that while his agency has been aware of right-wing extremists since the 1960s, it has been careful about investigating groups "based on their beliefs. We pursue investigations on individual suspects based on violations of law."

What is obvious is that the militias' use of computers, faxes and shortwave radios has given them the power to mobilize quickly in the face of even minor perceived threats. In January, for example, an alert was faxed to militias warning of an imminent "standoff" at the office of veterinarian Donald Ellwanger of Bellingham, Wash., who had refused to pay taxes for several years and was facing eviction.

"There are fears this action may escalate into another Waco or Weaver incident," said the Jan. 3 dispatch, referring to the notorious law enforcement confrontations at the Texas Branch Davidian compound and the Idaho mountain home of gun-owner Randy Weaver, in which federal agents shot his wife and child.

With about 40 militia members blocking the office entrances, Whatcom County Sheriff Dale E. Brandland delayed the eviction a few weeks until the militia members scattered. "When they sent out the militia alert, it heightened my sense of nervousness because I wasn't sure who might show," he said. "It seemed inevitable that there would be a confrontation. That's what the group wanted."

In some of the more extremist militia groups, an ominous strategy of "leaderless resistance" has taken hold recently, encouraging members to form cells and devise retaliation plans on their own.

"We're ready if attacked," an East Texan affiliated with one of the state's more strident militias told a reporter last week on condition he not be named. He described three-person squads called "triads," designed to swing into action "if the government strikes." He said some members have discussed whether to assassinate designated people if the government clamps down in some terrible way.

The militia movement, and the forces that propel it, are engrained in American history. The politics of frustration, as analyst Kevin Phillips has called it, often comes to center stage in periods of economic and social stress, usually with a mix of legitimate grievances and extremist resentments. One manifestation is the angry electorate's embrace of "outsiders," from George C. Wallace in the 1960s to H. Ross Perot in the '90s.

"What you have is people who feel the system has collapsed around them," said Chip Berlet who studies militia movements for Political Research Associates, a Cambridge, Mass., think tank. "If their grievances are addressed, the movement withdraws back into the mainstream. If they don't get addressed, what you get is a search for scapegoats and paranoid theories of history."

Berlet estimated that out of the tens of millions of populist middle-class voters, about five million consider themselves "patriots," convinced that the federal government is corrupt and moving toward tyranny. Perhaps 40,000 have taken the next step and joined armed militias.

Their main enemy is the federal government. After all, as Berlet observed, "what is the agency that makes us sit down at the lunch counter with the black man, that makes us put up with gay and lesbian teachers, that expects us to make room for working women, that tells us we can't build a condo on the beach?"

The enemy has faces too. According to the Massachusetts-based Institute for First Amendment Studies, which said it has infiltrated some militia groups, one Western militia leader's mailing list includes more than 4,000 names, mostly of militia members, but interspersed with individuals labeled "The Enemy." These included Reno, FBI Director Louis J. Freeh, even evangelist Billy Graham.

The militias in Michigan, perhaps the largest, illustrate the diversity of interests and ideologies among adherents. The biggest unit, the Michigan Militia, claims more than 10,000 members. McVeigh is said to have attended some of its meetings and was seen at some gatherings in the company of Mark Koernke, a nationally recognized militia leader.

There is a range of other militia groups, no two with exactly the same structure or interests. Officials around the state said that three years ago, none of the groups existed.

Michigan sheriffs and other officials insisted that for the most part the groups are harmless. "Out of 100 people in the room, I usually sense that there are only a few who really take all of their worries and fears to heart and really want to take some kind of action," said state Rep. Kim Rhead (R), a Michigan lawmaker who frequently interacts with militias. Their leaders frequently cite statements of founding fathers such as George Mason, who defined the "militia" as "the whole people, except for a few public officials," and Thomas Jefferson who said "the strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms, is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against government tyranny."

Some contend they are uncovering a conspiracy to dismantle the U.S. Constitution and create one world government. In their fears, many militia members sound like John Simpson of Caro, Mich. "We're the first line of defense for citizens," he said. "It's just men who are hoping for the best but preparing for the worst."

The GOP takeover of Congress last November apparently has done little to calm the long-standing anger of some militia members that seems beyond the reach of conventional politics.

"This Contract With America' they are talking about in Washington is a bunch of hogwash," said Elgie Zerod, who leads a Michigan militia called For The People. "We already have a contract. It's called the Constitution of the United States."

Keeping tabs on the groups often has been difficult. In Arizona, for example, the loosely organized militias long have been an enigma to state law enforcement officials, particularly since their anti-government activities became even more clandestine than usual following a series of conspiracy arrests in the late 1980s.

Federal authorities said those arrests may have averted a wave of terrorist attacks, assassinations and planned robberies. They also put so much pressure on the state's largest militia -- the Arizona Patriots -- that it faded from sight until reemerging in a splintered and dispersed form five years later. Suspect McVeigh moved from Michigan to Kingman, Ariz., in June 1993, drawn by former Army buddies, including one with ties to the Arizona Patriots.

Arizona officials conceded last week that they know very little about the size and structure of the groups. One state Public Safety Department official, who asked that he not be identified, said that because militias do not recognize any law enforcement agency above the county sheriffs, "we don't have much contact with them."

In Montana, a state with a long liberal tradition but also an active radical fringe, several incidents of near violence in the past year have been linked to militiamen.

In early April, a Darby, Mont., town marshal was confronted by seven armed men when he tried to arrest the daughter of a constitutionalist for driving with expired plates. Last month, seven "Freemen" and militia members were arrested and a dozen firearms seized outside the Musselshell County jail following the sentencing of another Freeman to 10 years in jail on felony terrorist acts.

Other incidents are more comical. The mayor of Cascade, Mont., published a legal notice saying he would try to turn the town into an Freemen enclave, and then deposited $20 million in bogus "Freemen" money orders into the town's bank account. The town council promptly removed him from office. Staff writers Rene Sanchez reported from Michigan; William Claiborne from Arizona; Serge Kovaleski from Oregon, Washington and Montana, and Susan Schmidt and John Mintz and staff researchers Barbara Saffir and Roland Matifas contributed from Washington. CAPTION: Norman Olson swears in new members of the Michigan Militia Corps last October at a training session near Wolverine, Mich. Late last week he was relieved as militia commander after making some controversial remarks. CAPTION: THE MILITIA MOVEMENT Bands of armed militants, most calling themselves militias, are cropping up across the country. They have no centralized structure, but there are links among some of them, largely the sharing of propaganda material and speakers. A survey conducted by the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith found evidence of their activity in 13 states.

GOALS AND VIEWS * Laying the groundwork for massive resistance to the federal government and its law enforcement agencies. While calling on citizens to take political action (e.g., write members of Congress, attend meetings etc.), they also urge that people prepare to resist the government by forming militias and stockpiling weapons, groceries and other necessities for survival. * Opposing gun control laws, including the Brady law and restrictions on assault weapons. * Resisting laws regarding home schooling, abortion, taxation, freedom of speech and religion. * Believing militias are heirs to spirit of Revolutionary War soldiers. * Opposing globalism and moral relativism.

KEY DATES * April 19, 1993: The confrontation between federal agents and Branch Davidian followers in Waco, Tex., in which around 80 followers died. * August 1992: The confrontation between federal agents and Randy Weaver in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in which two members of his family died.

CONSPIRACY THEORIES * The Federal Reserve System has enriched a tiny elite and needs to be abolished. * The Holocaust was a judgment upon the Jews for worshiping Satan. Jews influenced the savings and loan and BCCI scandals and the Federal Reserve. * The Internal Revenue Service, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and the FBI are conspiring against U.S. citizens, as are the International Monetary Fund, the Trilateral Commission, the Council on Foreign Relations and the Rockefeller Foundation. * The mainstream, establishment media do not report on these events.

SOURCE: "Armed and Dangerous: Militias Take Aim at the Federal Government," report by the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith